Tilt-rotor aircraft have only recently entered the civilian market with the Agusta-Westland AW169. Yet, these aircraft, which theoretically combine the best capabilities of a helicopter and a fixed wing propeller-driven airplane, have existed for some time in the military aviation community, most notable in the form of the US Marine Corps’ VH-22 Osprey transporter. But what, exactly, sets a tilt-rotor apart from its cousin, the helicopter, or its other cousin, a turboprop?
The civilian entry into the market is in the form of the AW-169, which is a civilian version of the VH-22. This aircraft has two counter-rotating rotors mounted on engine nacelles, driven by a single turbofan engine for each nacelle. What makes this aircraft unique is that these nacelles, or pods, can rotate. And in doing so, they take the AW169 from flight characteristic of a helicopter, in terms of ability to hover and maneuver, and turn it into a fixed wing turboprop.
The nacelles of the AW169 are mounted on the aircraft’s wings. Wings on a helicopter may seem sacrosanct, but in this instance, its what allows the aircraft its impressive maneuverability. The wings contain hydraulically operated control surfaces to aid in fixed wing flight, and the nacelle gears-those that allow the massive rotors to rotate from a upward position to a forward facing position- and motors are hydraulic as well. By placing the aircrafts engines at the end of the hollow wings, which store fuel, this allows the aircraft to contain much more within itself.
Further, the configuration of the tilt-rotor allows for an impressive amount of lifting ability. In testing, the AW169 had been able to lift almost 10,000 lbs. Although this has not been certified, nonetheless it remains a spectacular feat for any helicopter, and opens the door to the possibility that the AW169 may, one day, replace the Sikorsky Skycrane as the heavy lift helicopter of choice on the civilian market.
Although the AW169 is new to the market and is, at the time of this writing, pending FAA certification, Agusta-Westland has stated that it is no more difficult to fly than a standard configuration helicopter. Further, Augusta Westland will offer AW169-specific training for the aircraft. The FAA< meanwhile, is deciding whether or not additional licensure, type-rating, or endorsements will be needed for the tiltrotor, which has not been priced as of yet.
Still, the AW169 represents an exciting new dimension to the helicopter world, and one this author hopes to experience in the near future. So if you happen to buy one, give me a call-I’d love to ride in the right seat with you!